Shark finning: a ban alone won’t save our oceans

It is estimated that many shark species’ populations are under 10 percent of their original levels. (Image credit: Elizabeth Villalta | Unsplash.com)

Over a hundred million sharks are killed every year, most of them solely for their fins. The fin is the most valuable part of the shark. Thus, fishers often cut the fin off the sharks at sea and discard the rest of the body back into the sea—leaving them to suffer and die. Shark fishing and consumption is nothing new, coastal communities have been doing it since ancient times. Shark finning dates back to the Sung Dynasty, over a thousand years ago, and to this day China is the biggest consumer of shark fins. The economic boom that China has been experiencing in the last half-century has led to the rapid expansion of the Chinese upper class, which increased demand for shark fins. This in turn has transformed small-scale, artisanal shark fishing into a large-scale commercial enterprise.

The lucrative business of shark finning can be traced all over the world. Demand for fins in China mobilizes communities to fish for sharks all over the world—from Ecuador and Peru, through Indonesia to West African countries. On one hand, this has led to economic growth both for the exporters and the importers, but on the other, the exporting countries have grown more and more dependent on the prices of and demand for shark fins on the international market. In recent years attitudes in China to consuming shark fins seem to have begun to change in favour of the sharks. As a result of the increasing risk of ecosystem collapse and public pressures, several countries have introduced shark finning bans. Though the bans are effective in principle, they are ineffective in practice. The problem might just move from one country to a neighbouring one, like in the case of Ecuador and Peru.

Shark fin trading in Chinatown, Singapore. (Image credit: Naja Bertolt Jensen | Unsplash.com)

Over the past seven decades,  international legal frameworks such as the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS) and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) have been created. However, the sheer size of the oceans and the legal borders make the effective policing of shark finning at sea an extremely difficult task, and thus attention is instead focused on monitoring the land-based trade in valuable fish. This is further aggravated by the migratory nature of sharks. Due to the sharks crossing regulatory borders, shark protection has become both a global and local concern, needing coordination on multiple governance levels. Unlike other endangered species like whales, sharks are not under international protection.

The US and the EU show promising approaches for tackling shark fishing. They used to be some of the largest exporters of shark fins, but today they have strict regulations on shark fishing. Initially, Portugal and Spain were the World’s third-biggest exporters of shark fins. However, their citizens voted in favour of stricter protection regulations after becoming aware of this industry’s cruelty. This might give hope that at some point in the future, an international agreement can be reached to protect sharks.

In recent years, there has been a decreased demand for shark fins in China. Unlike the world market that can withstand such changes in demand, local fishers whose primary export is sharks must find alternative income sources. Due to the lack of viable options to make a living, fishers often opt for unsustainable or in some cases even illegal means to make ends meet. These include using homemade fish bombs to blast reefs and mangroves, a highly destructive fishing technique where explosives are used to send shock waves through the water, which stuns, kills, or ruptures the fish’s swim bladder. The fish are then easily collected from the surface of the water. However, it also kills any animal and flora in the blast area, completely destroying fish habitats.

A decrease in shark populations and the introduction of local regulations on shark fishing, such as the establishment of protected areas can have unforeseen negative consequences. Introducing regulations without adequate safety nets for the fishers can lead them to simply travel further to catch sharks in more abundant fishing grounds, including biodiverse reefs and other countries’ exclusive economic zones. Yet, regardless of lower demand in China or stricter local regulations—as long as shark finning is a profitable business, fishers will continue shark fishing, even if it becomes more risky. Smuggling fuel or asylum seekers with fishing boats are other illegal alternatives many fishers use to supplement their income. However, most often, the regulations are simply disregarded and shark finning continues.

A case study from Indonesia showed that a sustainable alternative to shark fishing could be seaweed farming, which is a much steadier source of income. Fishers who were interviewed had positive attitudes towards seaweed farming. However, seaweed farming would require start-up funds, retraining, and protection against environmental disasters like oil spills. For example, in the case of the remote economic periphery of eastern Indonesia, fishers were not compensated for oil spills, forcing locals to return to shark fishing.

Seaweed farming can be a sustainable alternative to shark finning. (Image credit: Eldo Rafael | Unsplash.com)

Simply banning shark fishing without creating social safety nets will lead to other undesirable consequences, which is why shark finning can be seen as a so-called „wicked problem”. There has been little coordinated effort to improve livelihoods in the fishing industry, and thus fishers are largely left to fend for themselves. Fishers have proved willing and able to change practices and occupations if viable alternatives were made available. While regulations have to be further enhanced to protect sharks, finding sustainable sources of livelihood for shark fishers and providing them with adequate resources for the transition should be a top priority of local governments and the international community.

By Nora Eliassen

November 14, 2023

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